Building a Racially Just Society: Psychological Insights

Unlearn-Racism

by Roy Eidelson, Mikhail Lyubansky, and Kathie Malley-Morrison

Authors Note. As three white psychologists, we offer this brief essay with the awareness that our perspective is necessarily limited by our lived experience as members of the privileged racial class. Through our many years of work as both psychologists and activists, we know first-hand how contentious and fraught racial justice discussions and efforts can be, even among colleagues and within organizations firmly committed to progressive social change. We share the essay below with the recognition that, to varying degrees, everyone is diminished by racism and racist institutions, and in the hope that this psychology-focused analysis may encourage constructive discussion and much needed action toward a racially just society.

This past August’s police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen, temporarily brought the attention of the entire nation to Ferguson, Missouri. The days and weeks that immediately followed witnessed prayer vigils; peaceful protests; sporadic episodes of minor violence and property damage; a heightened (and, in the eyes of many, overblown) law enforcement presence with armored trucks, riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets; a statement by President Obama from the White House; and a visit to the St. Louis suburb by Attorney General Eric Holder. Now, three months later, Ferguson residents wait anxiously for the anticipated announcement of whether a federal grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fired the gun that struck down Brown.

Whatever the outcome and immediate aftermath of those deliberations, Michael Brown’s tragic death, the anguish of his family, and the turmoil within his community are all salient reminders that the United States is still far from being a racially just and equitable society.[1] These failings are broad and deep. They are reflected in the longstanding and seemingly intractable realities of unequal treatment, circumstance, and opportunity for African Americans – and for other communities of color. And they pose a difficult yet increasingly urgent challenge[2] – not only in regard to seeking justice for Michael Brown, but also in working to redress the widespread and daily harms associated with race-based inequities in law enforcement and other areas.

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Neuroscience, Special Forces, and Ethics at Yale

SOF-Iraq2-PD

Last month, a proposal to establish a US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Center for Excellence in Operational Neuroscience at Yale University died a not-so-quiet death. The broad goal of “operational neuroscience” is to use research on the human brain and nervous system to protect and give tactical advantage to U.S. warfighters in the field. Crucial questions remain unanswered about the proposed center’s mission and the unusual circumstances surrounding its demise. But just as importantly, this episode brings much needed attention to the morally fraught and murky terrain where partnerships between university researchers and national security agencies lie.

A Brief Chronology 

Let’s start with what transpired, according to the news reports and official press releases. In late January, the Yale Herald reported that the Department of Defense had awarded $1.8 million to Yale University’s School of Medicine for the creation of the new center under the direction of Yale psychiatrist Charles Morgan III. Descriptions of the proposed center’s work revolved around the teaching of Morgan’s interviewing techniques to U.S. Special Forces in order to improve their intelligence gathering. To heighten the soldiers’ cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity, Morgan reportedly intended to draw volunteer interviewees from New Haven’s immigrant communities.

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The Torture Debate Echoes: An Army Psychologist's Job Search

Torture-Debate

For all of the wrong reasons, torture has been in the national news this past week. First, President Obama nominated John Brennan as the new director of the CIA, a man who embraced and defended the Bush Administration’s use of torturous “enhanced interrogation techniques” (before joining the current White House and becoming a leading advocate for drones and extrajudicial assassinations). Second, we observed the eleventh anniversary of the opening of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where over 100 of the men and boys brought there as part of our “war on terror” still remain — abused and indefinitely detained without trial in the military prison despised around the world. And third, the controversial hunt-for-Bin Laden film “Zero Dark Thirty”, which promotes the view that torture produced valuable intelligence, received multiple Academy Award nominations and was #1 at the box office last weekend.

Away from the national spotlight, in Columbia, Missouri — home of the University of Missouri — a related story is also unfolding this month. According to recent local news reports in the Columbia Missourian and the Columbia Daily Tribune, one of the two finalists in the job search for division executive director at the university’s College of Education is Dr. Larry James. What’s of particular note about James is that he’s a retired Army colonel and military psychologist who held positions of authority during stints at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo.

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In Praise of Shared Outrage

“We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” These were the words of Lord Brian Griffiths, Goldman Sachs international adviser, when he spoke at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral last fall. With inequality at historic levels here in the United States and around the world, it’s a reassuring message we all might wish to be true.

Unfortunately, scientific research reveals a sharply different reality: inequality is a driving force behind many of our most profound social ills. The Equality Trust reviewed thousands of studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank. Consistent patterns emerged, both between and within countries. Inequality is associated with diminished levels of physical and mental health, child well-being, educational achievement, social mobility, trust, and community life. And it is linked to increased levels of violence, drug use, imprisonment, obesity, and teenage births. In short, Lord Griffiths’ claim–despite the venue–was a self-serving fiction.

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On the Road to Change: The Psychology of Progress

highwayThe morning after last November’s historic election, triumphant chants of “Yes We Did” drowned out the Obama campaign message of “Yes We Can.” Now only four months later enthusiasm has waned, and last Friday the President felt the need to reassure reporters on Air Force One, “I don’t think that people should be fearful about our future.”

The striking contrast highlights the fact that any long and difficult journey should be measured in two parts – the distance already traveled, and the distance still left to go. Both measurements are necessary to really understand how much progress you’ve made toward reaching your destination. Neither one alone is sufficient.

This simple idea – appreciated by many a parent during road trips with young children repeatedly asking “Are we there yet?” – has special relevance for progressives as we contemplate where we stand today. On the one hand, we rejoice that the previous administration’s unprecedented incompetence, corruption, secrecy, and lawlessness are fading in our rear-view mirror each day. On the other hand, we are sobered by the realization that the horizon ahead is clouded by a crippled economy, an inadequate healthcare system, and multiple wars with no clear end in sight.

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Selling An Indefensible Status Quo

wallstreet3Stocks plummet on Wall Street. Home foreclosures mount across the country. Shameless finger pointing and disavowals swirl in the nation’s capital. And a recent Gallup poll finds that a record-low 9% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

The frightening numbers and front-page headlines certainly cry out for immediate short-term solutions. But they also raise a crucial question with long-term implications: How is it that our country’s powerful and self-interested defenders of the status quo so consistently succeed at suppressing popular outrage and combating calls for broad-based, progressive social change?

In part, the answer can be found in the insidious use of psychological manipulation to build public support for status quo policies that benefit the few while creating hardship for so many. Some of today’s top peddlers have embraced a rigid ideology that seemingly blinds them to the tragic human costs of their agenda, while others are driven by a simpler unyielding pursuit of personal wealth and power. Regardless of their motivation, their persuasion strategy often depends upon exploiting specific psychological “soft targets”–namely, five core concerns that profoundly influence how we make sense of the world. These concerns, central to the daily experiences of individuals and groups alike, revolve around the issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Let’s consider the manipulation of each in turn.

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Anchors for Progressives

anchor1Imagine people randomly divided into two groups for a simple psychology experiment. Those assigned to one group are asked two questions. First, “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 140?” And then, “How old was Gandhi when he died?” Meanwhile, those in the other group are asked the same followup question, but their first question is “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 9?”

The results of actual studies just like this one are quite consistent and robust, and they may surprise you. Participants given “140 years” as their initial comparison point think that Gandhi lived much longer than those who were given “9 years” instead. Findings like these demonstrate what psychologists call the “anchoring effect”: our strong tendency to make judgments that are biased toward arbitrary standards of comparison. The plausibility of these comparison “anchors” makes no difference to us–we rely on them regardless. As another example, research subjects asked whether Einstein’s first visit to the United States occurred before or after 1992 give a much more recent estimate of when he arrived than those asked whether he visited before or after the year 1215.

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